Comcast Corp. executive David L. Cohen, who helped transform the Philadelphia cable company into an international media giant with vast political influence, will step away from his operational roles at the company.
In a memo sent Thursday to Comcast workers, CEO Brian Roberts said Cohen will transition from his position in January and remain senior executive vice president next year, as his day-to-day responsibilities shift to other executives. After 2020, Cohen will become senior adviser to the CEO, “continuing to provide advice and support to me and the other senior executives in the company,” Roberts wrote.
Cohen rose from chief of staff to Mayor Ed Rendell, earning $110,000, to a Washington power player, making $19 million a year. Cohen also is the third-largest individual Comcast stockholder among company executives, behind only Roberts and NBCUniversal head Steve Burke. Cohen, as of Thursday’s share price, owned $237 million in Comcast stock, company filings show.
The announcement marks the end of an era. While Comcast vaulted into a vast media conglomerate during Cohen’s tenure, the company faced setbacks in recent years, notably the failed merger with Time Warner and a losing bid for 21st Century Fox. Even as Cohen led diversity efforts at Comcast, the company came under fire from lawmakers and civil rights groups over a racial-discrimination case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Cohen’s political power appears to have waned in Philadelphia, some observers say.
Over the last decade, Cohen had a broad array of responsibilities, including communications, government affairs, diversity, and corporate administration. He helped Comcast push through mega mergers, avoid unfavorable regulations, and expand its political influence in Washington and statehouses across the country.
» READ MORE: Timeline: David Cohen's career
“As I look toward my 65th birthday next year, I recognized that I needed to focus on Comcast’s next 10 years – who was going to be by Brian’s side as he continues to lead our company into the future – and on my own personal life which has candidly taken a back seat to my professional life,” Cohen said in an email to staff. “So I’ve decided that it’s time for this transition.”
In a separate statement, Cohen said: “I’m excited about this next chapter of my career and I am also looking forward to dedicating more of my time to civic and charitable activities that I have been so involved with.”
Cohen is also chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Pennsylvania.
Cohen’s step back comes amid a “generational transition" at the company, a Comcast source said, as younger executives move up the ladder. The company has seen turnover at general counsel and at the top of the cable division in recent years. Cohen himself said he’s decided to “make way for the many talented executives.”
Karen Dougherty Buchholz was named chief diversity officer, a post Cohen had held. And Thomas J. Reid, who serves as general counsel, will be in charge of government, regulatory, and political affairs.
Cohen declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed Thursday.
Before joining Comcast in 2002, Cohen was a partner and chairman at the Ballard Spahr law firm, after serving under Rendell. He was a significant architect of Rendell’s tenure in City Hall, and one of the subjects of A Prayer for the City, a seminal book about Philadelphia’s revitalization in the 1990s.
As the reach of his power grew from the city to state and national politics, he became a force even in presidential campaigns, hosting fund-raisers for Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and President Barack Obama. He also raised money for Republicans such as Sen Pat Toomey and former Gov. Tom Corbett.
Cohen’s role at Comcast
While Comcast transformed from a regional cable provider into a global giant through deal-making, Comcast CEO Roberts and his team negotiated financial terms and handed the deals off to Cohen to obtain the necessary regulatory approvals and sell them to the media. Cohen also would talk on Capitol Hill to House and Senate committees leery of Comcast’s economic market power.
Months after Cohen joined the company, Comcast completed its acquisition of AT&T’s broadband business, which made the company the largest U.S. cable provider.
In 2011, Comcast bought NBCUniversal, gaining control of NBC broadcast television, NBCU cable networks, and the Universal theme parks and movie studio. Comcast acquired Sky, the U.K.-based pay-television service, last year.
At the same time, Comcast’s lobbying presence “exploded” under Cohen into “one of the largest juggernauts in the country,” said David Goodfriend, a Washington telecom lawyer and lobbyist. Goodfriend said he considered Cohen a “worthy adversary.”
Indeed, Comcast’s spending on lobbying in Washington ballooned from less than $2.5 million in 2002 to more than $15 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Its spending peaked at nearly $19.3 million in 2011, the year Comcast acquired NBCUniversal.
Roberts said it was “impossible to overstate David’s value” to the company.
“I am deeply grateful to him as we have partnered together with a handful of executives to grow Comcast into the great company it is today,” Roberts said in a statement. “His impact on Philadelphia cannot be understated and his passion for diversity and inclusion has helped transform our company and our industry.”
Some serious setbacks
While Cohen had successes, he also had some notable disappointments, Goodfriend said, citing the federal government’s rejection of Comcast’s proposed deal for Time Warner Cable in 2015 and “net neutrality” regulations during the Obama administration. Those regulations, which barred internet providers from blocking, slowing down, or charging companies to favor some sites over others, were later undone under the Trump administration.
Comcast’s proposed deal to acquire Time Warner Cable would have merged the Nos. 1 and 2 cable companies, and contentious hearings were held in Washington as customers blasted both companies for high prices and shoddy customer service.
Patrick Gottsch, the founder and president of RFD-TV and the Cowboy Channel, testified in Washington before a House committee on the proposed deal in May 2014, opposite Cohen.
“Very powerful,” Gottsch said Thursday of Cohen. “Comcast is a lot like other companies we work with in that they have an urban bias. The one thing I would compliment [Cohen] on was that he was honest about Comcast’s urban bias. He said it twice [at the hearing]. There is nothing phony about him.”
Comcast has come under fire on multiple fronts in recent months.
The company is battling media mogul Byron Allen in a racial-discrimination case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Civil rights groups and legal experts have warned that a Comcast victory make it harder for others to bring racial-discrimination claims in the future.
Meanwhile, the company is locked in a contentious fee dispute with Starz, which has gotten the attention of lawmakers, and a Denver sports channel that sued the cable giant., accusing Comcast of abusing its market power.
On top of all that, Comcast is still weathering the fallout from allegations of sexual misconduct at NBC that were detailed in a recent best-selling book by journalist Ronan Farrow. Six presidential candidates recently called on Comcast to conduct an independent investigation into NBC’s “toxic culture.”
Former Gov. Rendell, who as Philadelphia mayor made Cohen chief of staff, said he hadn’t talked to Cohen about retiring from Comcast and was surprised by the announcement.
Rendell said Cohen likely stepped down to spend more time on his other leadership roles, chairing the University of Pennsylvania’s board. Rendell said Cohen’s influence over the years has been unparalleled. “Since we came into office in ’92, he’s probably been the most impactful individual in the city,” Rendell said.
He said he expects Cohen to play a key role in Biden’s White House bid. “He’ll be the leading force in the Biden effort in Pennsylvania,” Rendell said.
Charlie Dent, former Republican congressman from Allentown, praised Cohen as both a friend and “a force of nature."
As for Cohen’s future plans, Dent said: “I’m sure all that talent and energy will not be wasted in retirement.”
Contributing to this article were staff writers Jonathan Tamari, Andrew Seidman, Sean Collins Walsh, and Chris Brennan.